A goalie among goal-scorers!

It’s Ballon d’Or time and as usual Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are in contention. There is also a surprise nomination this year in the World Cup-winning German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who also has the ability to double as an outfield player. Will he get the nod, wonders Priyansh.

It’s tough to understand the meaning carried by an individual prize in a team sport like football. For all the glitz and glamour surrounding the FIFA Ballon d’Or, the build up to the announcement of the prize and the gala night itself seems like a contrived drama.

It surely doesn’t help that for the past few years it has been a race between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. The football industry’s obsession with the personality cult reaches its zenith during the Ballon d’Or debates. You could be forgiven for not caring about the winner at all.

But 2014 has been a strange year in football, from a solely FIFA-based perspective. While the sport’s world governing body faced a credibility crisis that hadn’t been seen for years, its showpiece tournament was redeemed. The World Cup in Brazil brought the glimmer and glamour back to international football.

Strangely enough, now there’s an opportunity to redeem the Ballon d’Or as well. Two of the three nominees are, obviously, Ronaldo and Messi. The last time neither of the two found a place in the final three was in 2006.

It’s the third nomination that offers a unique opportunity. World Cup winner Manuel Neuer could become the first goalkeeper to be named the best player in the world since the prize was instituted in 1991.

Expectedly, some exclusions have made people turn their noses up. Thierry Henry is disappointed that Thomas Mueller didn’t make the cut.

“He would have been my guy, because he doesn’t do stepovers, nutmegs and all this stuff, but this guy already has 13 or 14 goals in the World Cup. And he’s a World Cup winner. Why is he not there?”

Xavi, on the other hand, was peeved by Ronaldo’s inclusion.

“He didn’t do much in the World Cup, and in a World Cup year, the season is defined by that. (In first place I would have) Leo (Messi), second Philipp Lahm and third Javier Mascherano.”

Roberto Carlos, however, wanted Neymar in the final three before backing Ronaldo to win it. While the former Brazilian left-back was quick to deny his allegiances played a part in his support for the duo, there was some truth in Chelsea left-back Filipe Luis’ statement when he called the Ballon d’Or a “political prize.”

However, what Carlos said later is of greater significance here.

“We all know that it’s really hard to give the Ballon d’Or to a goalkeeper or even a defender. Maybe (Fabio) Cannavaro and (Paolo) Maldini were the only exceptions. So in my opinion the three best players in the world this season were Cristiano, Messi and Neymar.”

There’s more than a grain of truth in Carlos’ utterance. Before the FIFA prize was instituted at the beginning of the ’90s, the France Football Ballon d’Or was the undisputed award (albeit, only for Europe-based footballers). Since its inception in 1956, Lev Yashin was the only goalkeeper to win the prize (1961).

In fact, no goalkeeper has been nominated for the FIFA award after 2002 when Oliver Kahn delivered a memorable performance at the World Cup in South Korea and Japan. Xavi’s argument is pertinent. Until 2010, only a player from a World Cup winning team had won the annual award. It meant that even a centre-back, Cannavaro, won it in 2006.

But in 2010, Lionel Messi relegated World Cup winners Andres Iniesta and Xavi to the second and third place respectively. It’s a testament to the superlative ability of the Argentinean and Ronaldo that the dogmatic idea of giving the Ballon d’Or to only a world champion was discarded and is likely to be rejected once again.

Neuer knows he isn’t the frontrunner. “I’m certainly not the favourite. The other two players are global brands in their own right and maybe for that reason they have an advantage,” the Bayern Munich ’keeper told German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

UEFA President Michel Platini, Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal and Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, however, believe that the winner should come from the World Cup winning team. Yet, that alone shouldn’t decide the award in Neuer’s favour. There’s more to the 28-year-old custodian. Neuer is not only among the top three goalkeepers in the world but he’s also, arguably, the most effective sweeper-keeper in the game. In this regard, Neuer has developed significantly ever since Pep Guardiola started working at Bayern Munich. The season before the Spanish manager arrived, the German’s pass percentage stood at 74.9% in Bundesliga and 67.2% in the UEFA Champions League.

In Guardiola’s first season, the domestic figure rose to 88.3% while continentally Neuer completed 79.4% of his passes. It was a dramatic increase inspired by a coach who likes to use his goalkeeper almost as an outfield player. After Neuer’s impressive performance against Algeria at the World Cup, Germany manager Joachim Loew brought notice to the goalkeeper’s special ability.

“He could play in the midfield and is welcome to take these risks. He has a feeling for a long pass and is there when we need him. To do that you have to have the feeling of a footballer and Manuel is a technical player, he has the same skills as the others. When we attack he has to move forward as well but he can do that. He is a perfect player.”

Loew added weight to a growing belief that Neuer has added a new dimension to modern goalkeeping. While he’s not the first sweeper-keeper, the German’s technical sophistication is about to touch unprecedented heights. No wonder that Neuer was awarded the ‘Golden Glove’ and a place in the tournament’s best eleven at the World Cup in Brazil.

Messi (four) and Ronaldo (two) have already won the Ballon d’Or six times. While their goal-scoring exploits continue to have an unworldly feel to them, never before have they encountered an opponent like Neuer.

It needs to be remembered that FIFA’s decision to give Messi the ‘Golden Ball’ (awarded to the World Cup’s best player) in Brazil was a contentious decision in itself. Ronaldo won the Ballon d’Or last year and remains an outstanding candidate even in 2014. But a poor World Cup blemished his last 12 months.

Neuer shouldn’t be named the best player in the world to create history or redeem the Ballon d’Or award. Rather, Neuer’s potential to create history on account of his abilities as a goalkeeper should tilt the vote in his favour.